The Great Beauty is a film more Fellini-esque than Fellini. Director Paolo Sorrentino doesn't simply mimic the master's style and preoccupations, but also conjures the kind of emotions that made La Dolce Vita, 81/2, and others endure. Beneath scenes of superficial extravagance and eccentricity, he finds deeper yearnings.
The main character, a writer named Jep Gambardella (Toni Servillo), could almost be an older version of the Marcello Mastroianni character in Dolce Vita. Having published one very successful novel 40 years ago, Jep never penned another, instead doing just enough journalistic work to keep him in contact with everyone worth knowing in the city. At his pad overlooking the Colosseum, he hosts parties large and small. His latest was for his 65th birthday, a milestone making him more introspective than usual.
Melancholy deepens when Jep is visited by a stranger named Alfredo. He's the husband of Jep's first love, and he reports that she has died. Opening her private diary after her death, Alfredo learned she remained in love with Jep her whole life, even though she, not Jep, broke things off.
Loss dogs Jep afterward, a beautiful, suave sadness, the kind that might incline a man to linger over life's pleasures. Abetted by Luca Bigazzi's lush cinematography, the film takes us on candlelit tours of secret museums, peeks into places where the wealthy are pampered, and wanders into an ancient ruin where a lone giraffe stands under a spotlight.
Servillo gives Jep an intellectual spark and a generosity of spirit one does not expect from a veteran of so many skin-deep friendships. When provoked by a woman bemoaning the do-nothing narcissism of her peers, he calmly hacks apart her idealized self-image, then affectionately suggests their whole social circle is similarly flawed. Uttering what could be the motto of a movie so focused on appreciating beauty where it can be found, he implores her: "We're all in tatters. Pass the time with us nicely."
The Great Beauty ***1/2 (out of four stars)
Directed by Paolo Sorrentino. With Toni Servillo, Carlo Verdone, Sabrina Ferilli, and Carlo Buccirosso. Distributed by Janus Films.
Running time: 2 hours, 2 mins.
Parent's guide: Unrated (nudity, sexual content, strong language, drug themes)
Playing at: Ritz Bourse